Few fictional characters have captivated us as much as Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps that helps explain the instant affection one feels for director Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes, a touching, dramatic imagining of the final, feeble days of the super sleuth.
It's 1947 and the 93-year-old Holmes — played to perfection by Ian McKellen — lives in southern England, retired for 30 years. Watson is either estranged or dead and Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, has just passed away. The great detective is all alone, save for his housekeeper and her young son.
As if the isolation and physical decay weren't enough for this once grand man, he's suffering a loss that, for the average man, would be a tragedy but for him is the worst of indignations: He's losing his memory.
In this reimagined post-war England, John Watson created the Holmes we know from the stories. He based these "penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style" on real-life cases, but he embellished them, providing added theatricality. Holmes was initially fine with that, but as he grows more and more frail, he longs to put down on paper the true story of his final case, the one that prompted him to retire. Yet, tragically, he can't remember it.
Mr. Holmes is a moving and delightful look at a character we mistakenly thought we already knew. Through the use of flashbacks and a stellar portrayal by McKellen — look for an Oscar nomination — we discover a more human Holmes, one full of both pride and regret, one struggling to balance his longing for logic with the realization that happiness may actually lie in an illogical sense of compassion.
Laura Linney, as the housekeeper, has to do some heavy lifting. Almost always up to that task in prior films, she's an odd choice for this one, partially because she can never quite perfect the Sussex sound. Much is also asked of young Milo Parker, who plays the housekeeper's son and while he, like Linney, has some moments of real emotion, he too slips in and out of dialect.
Nevertheless, it's fascinating to watch the relationship among the three characters slowly evolve. That process ultimately reveals new insights into Holmes' personality, crime-solving skills and — most intriguingly — his past, which is kept shrouded from both his view and ours until the final act, in keeping with the best of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories.
"One shouldn't leave this life without a sense of completion," says Holmes. Thanks to this film, the character of Sherlock Holmes does indeed feel just a tad more complete.
Mr. Holmes (PG) 104 min.
Dir. Bill Condon; writ. Jeffrey Hatcher (based on a novel by Mitch Cullin and characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle); feat. Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada
Opens July 17 at Santikos Bijou and Embassy. ★★★★